While most of the national headline-grabbing incidents of violence against unarmed Black people, from Treyvon Martin to Michael Brown to George Floyd, have involved male victims, Black women and Black transgender women also experience police brutality and are often the backbone of the fight to raise awareness and change minds. This is why we’re turning the spotlight to the women leaders who so often go unsung. A part of our Black (Women’s) Lives Matter feature, this story focuses on activist Jeynce Poindexter.
Activism doesn’t always mean marching, rallying, or working for a nonprofit — something lifelong Detroiter and Black, transgender activist Jeynce Poindexter learned early on. Her mentors, the older trans women who became her surrogate family after she escaped an abusive home at 14, showed her that the simple act of embracing an ostracized kid can be as profound and life-altering as a Supreme Court victory.
Once Poindexter survived to adulthood — relying on the generosity of friends and income from what she calls “survival sex work” — she was determined to pay it forward.
“I knew I had to do that for the people coming up under me,” says Poindexter, who has served, since 2016, as the transgender victims advocate for the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Michigan. “I can fulfill an advocate role in many ways, be it taking my ‘children’ to school or speaking with their parents, who don’t understand their child’s identity. Maybe it’s opening my house throughout the years, allowing several of my kids to stay with me when they’ve been kicked out.”
Her activist career, of course, extends beyond those gratifying acts of kindness. In her 20s, when she noticed that services for LGBTQ people, such as HIV/AIDS prevention programs, were being cut back, she began providing those services herself. By mobilizing residents, she organized projects for education, outreach, housing resources, peer and family mediation, and crisis intervention. Distressed by the ever-present violence against transgender women of color, also became a board member for the Trans Sistas of Color Project – a Detroit support organization founded, in part, by multidisciplinary artist Ahya Simone.
Hate crimes against Black trans women are alarmingly common in the U.S., according to a report from the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign. In 2019, the report states, most of the 27 trans and gender-nonconforming people who were murdered were Black transgender women.
“Transgender women of color are living in crisis, especially Black transgender women,” HRC President Alphonso David says in a press statement. “Every one of these lives cut tragically short reinforces the urgent need for action on all fronts to end this epidemic — from lawmakers and law enforcement, to the media and our communities.”
Molding a fairer, more peaceful world for trans people has proved an exhilarating and exhausting journey for Poindexter, who says she’s often disheartened by bias emanating from within her communities. “People think because we’re the LGBTQ community, everything is about love and respect and equality,” she says. “But to be honest, there’s a lot of racism.”
Similarly, Poindexter says she finds transphobia within the Black community disappointing and hypocritical. She notes that while Black transgender people have stepped up for the Black Lives Matter protests across the country, speakers at these events have rarely taken note of the enhanced danger that Black trans people face.
She points as an example to video that went viral from St. Paul, Minnesota, showing Iyanna Dior, a 20-year-old Black trans woman, being beaten by a crowd of Black cisgender men. In addition, a Black trans man, Tony McDade, was shot to death by police in Tallahassee, Florida, two days after viral video of the death of George Floyd launched the current wave of demonstrations.
“The message of Black Lives Matter is to end discrimination and violence,” she says. “In not acknowledging violence against certain Black lives, you’re not only complacent in white supremacy — you’re perpetuating the very values you stand against. I’m in a fight with society for respect and an end to discrimination, but I also have another battle to fight, against my own people.”
There is some progress, though. On June 14, Black Lives Matter events in Chicago, New York City, and Salt Lake City all focused on concern for Black trans people. The next day, the transgender community woke up to its most important legal victory, a 6-3 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that bars employment discrimination against LGBTQ people.
To Poindexter, it’s hardly enough. She’s pleased to live “through this moment and be part of the push for change” on the racial injustice front, but there are daily reminders that the multifaceted struggle she’s in is far from over.
“When I wake up each morning, I have to put on a few layers of armor because I got a few fights to fight, and that can be heavy,” she says.